Work From Home movement gets national attention

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There’s a chance that on November 24, 2011, you won’t go into work—and neither will a lot of other Canadians.

What started as a Workopolis poll question has grown into a grassroots campaign to rethink Canadians’ commutes that’s added an MP and an entire city to its ranks. The City of Ottawa recognized Telework Day on November 24 this year, the first step in what could one day wind up as National Work From Home Day.
Peter Harris, content manager for career solutions website Workopolis, said setting aside a day to encourage telecommuting across Canada can “serve as a symbol” for a different way to work that’s already gaining in popularity with some employers.

“People are working longer hours. With technology that allows you to work from anywhere, people find themselves doing that,” Harris said.

“They’re working from home anyways, plus spending the whole day in the office. Juggling work life and family life and your other interests outside of work is becoming harder.”

Harris said the push for Work From Home Day “kind of started by accident” in May when he suggested on Workopolis’ Facebook page that companies let employees work from home on their birthdays “just to avoid going into the office and having the awkward singing and the bad cake,” he laughed. “And that idea didn’t take off, but the fans, the people on the page, immediately leaped on the idea of working from home as an option…They talked about other jobs where they had the flexibility and how good it was.

Other people said, ‘Isn’t that really just an excuse for taking a day off?’ or, ‘If I told my boss I was going to work from home, he’s going to assume I’m not working.’”

Harris did some digging and saw the United Kingdom instituted a National Work From Home Day a few years ago, and decided to put the question to a poll on Workopolis’ home page about setting aside a national telework day.

The excitement around the idea was immediately obvious. Workopolis sees 3,000 votes a week on most of its polls—this one saw 20,000 responses in just 10 days, and 80 per cent were in favour of the day. Soon, Workopolis essentially transformed its Facebook page into a National Work From Home Day page and went from 1,000 fans to 50,000 in under six months.

One of National Work From Home Day’s best-known supporters is MP Mike Savage, who spoke on Parliament Hill on November 24 about recognizing the day as national policy.

“A huge number of Canadians are interested in this and have indicated support for it,” he said. “And the understanding is that it’s not for everybody. Not everybody wants to work from home. Not everybody can work from home.

“We don’t want our policemen and our airline pilots and our firefighters working from home, but who would’ve thought 25 years ago that doctors could work over the telephone? Who would’ve thought that you could actually assist in operations in Yarmouth, (N.S.) from Halifax? These are all things that are happening.”
Savage, a Liberal MP for Nova Scotia’s Dartmouth-Cole Harbour riding since 2004, said the initial reaction was positive. While he’s not sure if he’ll draft a private member’s bill to endorse the day, he said chats with other MPs—who already use videoconferencing to work from their ridings—have given him hope the day could take root.

“It’s really a recognition of the fact that work has changed over the last couple of years with teleconferencing, with Skype, with webinars,” he said. “We’re not trying to jam the government or force their hand, we just want them to recognize and have a look at understanding the importance of this, and I’m sure they will.”

The day has already been approved by one government in the nation’s capital—the City of Ottawa. Councillor Maria McRae was behind City Hall’s decision to proclaim today as Telework Day, and while it’s too early to tell how many ditched the commute, the day “was well received” at first glance, McRae said.
And that’s important, McRae said, as telecommuting becomes more commonplace in Canada.

“I think telework will become more prevalent not just in Ottawa, but I think throughout the country,” she said.

She added the day drew attention to a coming problem—a massive downtown construction project to build a transit tunnel that will see “such significant disruption in that area that more people will have to telework. We’re going to have to get ready for that.”

But while McRae is a big believer in the boosts to productivity and staff morale that telecommuting can offer, it’s not clear if Ottawa will make the day an annual event. The data will be reviewed and a decision will likely come early next year, McRae said.

It also remains to be seen how this will go as a national initiative. A Harris-Decima poll conducted for Workopolis found just the slimmest majority of Canadians—51 per cent—would use their own resources, like a computer, to work from home.

But Savage thinks the benefits of national recognition are serious. Parliamentary approval would at the very least see more of the federal government’s large workforce staying away from the office for a day, which provides benefits not just to the employee, but the environment, he said.

“Just as an example, if 1 million Canadians worked at home one day each week, the country would save 250 million kilograms of CO2 emissions (and) 100 million litres of fuel,” he said. “It starts to add up fairly quickly in terms of what the impact might be on the environment.”

Harris said Workopolis and some of its partners such as an ad agency and public relations firm, took the commute off on November 24 with no disruption from work. And while the data isn’t ready in Ottawa, McRae said Telework Day “was well received” and enjoyed “great support from city council” and members of the public and private sectors.

For now, data needs to be assessed and decisions need to be made on the plan for next November. While Savage said his human resources background leads him to believe this day is a key part of solving some of Canada’s productivity challenges, he and everyone else involved know there’s still some explaining and convincing to do.

The current stage of his side of the project, Savage said, is “all about awareness, raising the issue and making sure that everybody understands that this is already happening. It is the new reality of work.

“It may be worth having a look at it more closely to see where you can encourage work from home where it’s appropriate for both the employers and the employees, and there are benefits both ways.”

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